Rabbi Diane Cohen

The following sermon was delivered during the 2001 Jewish High Holiday season following the tragic events of September 11, 2001. It has been included on the Torah From Terror website as a resource and retains the copyright of its author. Please cite the source accordingly.

Rabbi Diane Cohen

Temple Ohev Shalom
Colonia, New Jersey


I’m in a hurry to get things done

Oh I rush and rush until life’s no fun

All I really gotta do is live and die

But I’m in a hurry and don’t know why

My original intent for this first morning of the new year was to amuse you, read you the full text of that song by Alabama, joke about being a country-music fan. But in the interim between the conception and the delivery, we have all been so hideously side-tracked by the events in New York and Washington that I have been hard-pressed to find anything funny to share with you.

But while levity seems to be inappropriate, the topic of my remarks remains very appropriate, and perhaps even more so since the terrorist attacks of last week.

Because, you see, I had planned to speak today about time, and for most Americans, time seemed to be suspended last week. The days seemed to flow into one another; we were sleep-deprived and exhausted from the shock and the grieving.

I don’t know about you, but what saved my life, and not for the first time, was Shabbat. About an hour before candlelighting, I turned off the computer and the television and began my Shabbat preparation. And for the next 26 hours, the only connection I had with lower Manhattan was the Star-Ledger and the Home News and the conversations I had with many of you on Friday night and Shabbat morning. My body was crying for sleep, and I happily gave in. Without Shabbat, there is no doubt in my mind that I would have crashed from exhaustion.

Seldom has the difference between secular time and Jewish time been more pronounced. In a week when day flowed into day, we Jews had a pause button, a way to get off the world for a while, and recoup our energy.

Let me tell you what I’ve learned about time. I’ve learned that time is finite. There is just so much time that we’re given, in a day, or a week, or a lifetime. And if we don’t use that time wisely, we have squandered a precious commodity.

Of course, one might learn the wrong lesson from what I’ve just said. One might react as the writer of the song with which I began these remarks, and decide that if time is short, we need to move as quickly as we can, pack as much as we can into the time we’ve been given.

We might assume that. But let me suggest another possibility. Let me suggest that, like any other finite commodity, we must spend it wisely, and packing five lifetimes into one is not spending it wisely, any more than wasting our time on frivolity. I remember a number of years ago, my son Josh was traveling through England and France, and underestimated the amount of money he would need in England. By the time he got to France, he was running dangerously low on funds and called his father and me in a panic. I remember well the day I was working in a synagogue office and spent most of the time on the phone with my son in Paris.

What you need to know about Josh is that he eats pretty much anything not moving. It’s his metabolism. He’s a runner and burns it off. He’s a pleasure to cook for. But the downside is, he needs to eat often. And he’d been saving his money for – I’m not sure what. And he told me he was so hungry he thought he was going to pass out. I yelled at him to find an orange and maybe some bread, that he’d get help through Western Union the next morning.

Josh was trying very hard not to squander his limited funds, but there was a need to spend some of it to survive.

We need to learn how to preserve our time, while at the same time learning how to use it wisely.

The most important lesson we can learn is to pace ourselves. Josh, my marathon runner, can tell you that. Learn when to expend your energy, learn when to conserve it. Learn how to balance your output so that you are not left without any energy, without any time.

This past Shabbat wasn’t the first time that rhythm of six days work/one day rest helped. Eight years ago, I spent two hellish days moving into my home in Connecticut. I was determined to open as many boxes as possible, get my home in order. But when Friday morning dawned, I knew my more important task was to find my roasting pot and my spices, go find hallah and a chicken, and prepare for Shabbas. That night, I ate and went right to sleep. There was nothing more I could do, you see. I got out of bed the next day to eat, and then went back to sleep. By Saturday night, I was a new person and able to resume setting up my home.

I have no doubt in my mind that, had that second day not been Friday, I’d have continued to push myself and been pretty useless to myself and my community. Shabbat forced that pause, and it preserved me.

Recognizing that time is finite can have a number of effects. A little over a week ago, during our discussion before Selihot, I reminded the group of a famous Mishna that tells us to repent one day before our death. What’s the problem, I asked. It was obvious. How can we know when we will die? Ah, I said, so when should we worry about repenting?

The unpredictability of life could not have been brought home more forcefully than just two days later, when those three planes did their awful damage. Five thousand lives brought to an end. And how many messages were unsent? How many tasks were left undone? How many I’m sorry’s were left unsaid?

The message of these Days of Awe was horribly underscored last week – our time here is finite. Is there a project – a painting or a book or a piece of music – you believe is in you? What are you waiting for? Is there a skill you believe you could master, if given the time? What are you waiting for? We always think we have tomorrow, until tomorrow is hijacked.

But lest you think that taking care of all those postponed dreams will necessitate your packing more activity into your already packed lives, let me now suggest something I think many survivors of the attack will be doing. Re-evaluate your life. What is no longer so important? What now seems trivial? What are you engaged in – is it worth the time you are spending? Step back and consider the value of your activities in the long run. That’s hard, because we have become so now-focused that we have lost sight of the grandeur of the forest as we tag and measure each tree.

If you would like some suggestions for activities of value, check out our tradition. Judaism has survived because what it represents has survived – family, honesty in business, the orderly pace of time, the recognition of Something greater than ourselves, the value of study for its own sake, community.

For how many of those values do you make time in your daily or weekly life? Most of us would recognize the importance of family, although I would guess that there may be some who recognize its theoretical importance, while always pushing it away till later. But what about the pace of time? What about the recognition of Something greater than ourselves? Do we take the time, daily, to recite prayers of acknowledgement and thanksgiving along with prayers of petition? Do we take the time to study a piece of Jewish text? Do we support our synagogue’s minyan?

If you speak to people who structure their lives Jewishly, you will learn something very interesting. When the office or the classroom or the laboratory is only one venue of activity, along with a place to study with a friend or relative, along with a place to daven with 9 other Jews, these people find their lives more balanced, fuller without being overloaded. They will have learned to put their professional lives into context. They will have learned to structure their time well.

Now let me suggest another element in how we use time. Learn not to let time become our master. Somewhere in the body of the Alabama song is a reference to clocks, and the race against the clock.

Life isn’t a race. To paraphrase central character in the film The Legend of Bagger Vance, life isn’t a race to be won, but merely to be run. Life is for us to journey through. Once again, we are focused on the minutiae of our day without stepping back and enjoying the greater picture. I wonder how many of you have checked your watches during the time I’ve been speaking. Some more than once, I would imagine.

Tell me – do you have somewhere else to go today?

I promise you, you will not be kept here indefinitely. I will be as ready as you for lunch. Checking your watch is an indication of impatience and perhaps of boredom. The boredom I can’t help too much, but it’s only another reason to find the time to study. You can’t get bored by what you’ve learned to enjoy. But impatience? If God were as impatient with us as we are with each other, the world would have ended a long time ago.

Let me suggest something radical to you. Tomorrow, leave your watch home. Next Shabbas, leave your watch home. On Yom Kippur, leave your watch home. Will it really be so important to know whether it’s noon or quarter after? Michael, Harold and I will begin the services promptly and move through them in a timely fashion. Leave your watches home and become immersed in something timeless.

While we’re on the subject of impatience, we need to understand something else about time.

God’s time is not our time.

God has a far different perspective on time. Minutes and hours are not the same for God as they are for us. And with God ultimately in charge, we need to learn to let go of our impatience. In a world where life has been distilled down to sound bytes, where we have coined the term nanosecond, we have lost the appreciation for hours and days. And we grow impatient if our needs are not immediately gratified. I remember a comedy routine by Bill Cosby that is over 30 years old, but still brings a smile to my face. His wife Camille was pregnant with their first child, and he was concerned at the long months the child was confined to that small room. He mused, “Maybe I should get Camille to swallow a basketball so the baby can have something to do.” Then he speculated, “Maybe Polaroid could work on an instant gestation along the lines of their camera. Kiss your wife, wait 90 seconds, and there’s the baby.”

Thank God we have not figured out a way to cut those nine months short, although I know there are mothers out there would might disagree. And to be sure, Cosby’s routine was pure comedy. But some 30 years later, we have invested years of technological research in learning how to speed along the needs of everyday life. I was in Office Max this morning, and a woman asked about the cost of faxing a document to north Jersey. When she learned how much it would be, she walked off, smiling, saying, “I’ll mail it!” How we have come to depend on faxing and e-mail and all the other instant forms of communication in our world. For all that they are invaluable in their place, they have gone from being a part of our culture to driving our culture.

And we’re not ready to wait. I’m reminded of the little girl in the movie “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” who kept whining to her father, “I want it and I want it NOW.”

God sits back and considers two things. First, is what we want something we should have? And second, what needs to happen first? And how long will each step take before our prayers are answered? Some of us think that God is like Santa Claus. Ask for something on Monday and find it on Friday. While in our rational awareness we know better, deep inside we become impatient, and we are tempted to complain like Willie Wonka’s little friend – “But God, I want it NOW.”

Faith in God means bringing our petitions to the Holy Throne, and then saying to ourselves, “If my will matches God’s will, it will happen in God’s time.”

That sounds tough to swallow. That sounds fatalistic and vaguely not-Jewish. But the alternative is to rage in our world, furious that things aren’t going our way and doubting the beneficence, or even the existence, of God.

What is on God’s agenda to come to us will come to us.

Such a perception of the long view of time has never been more important than now. Those of us who love Israel and have watched her struggle with this year-long uprising and the accompanying loss of her tourist income have wondered just how long the matzav, the situation, will continue. And now, we are torn in two directions, worrying about Israel, but worrying not one bit less about this country, that has given us greater opportunities than any other in our history. We worry about our families, our neighbors, the shopkeepers with whom we do business – we worry about an entire way of life and about the safety of everyone who shares the name American. And once again, we wonder how long the matzav will continue.

We have already been cautioned that the struggle will be a long one. And just a week after the attacks on New York and Washington, we are prepared, we think, for the long haul. But will we truly be prepared to be patient here stateside while our armed forces are doing their job? Or will we simply want the struggle to be over?

There’s not a thing wrong with wanting violence and bloodshed to end. But it will end when the time comes for it to end. This war will not be merely a strategic contest between two armies on the field. And our country, which has shown its mettle in conflicts in past decades and centuries, will be called upon again to demonstrate the courage of which Tom Brokaw speaks so glowingly in his paean to the World War II generation. Our parents’ and grandparents’ generation knew how to be patient. They knew that nothing worthwhile comes quickly. And they understood far better than our world does that a petition favorably received by God does not mean immediate gratification.

Are you in such a rush to get things done that you’ve rushed the fun out of life? Or more to the point, have you rushed the meaning out of life? In this season of self-evaluation and introspection, let me invite you to do more than just consider whether you have wronged another, whether a friend or relative or God. Let me invite you to consider whether you’ve wronged yourself, by squandering time, but not spending time wisely; by filling your minutes without filling your years; by watching the count-down on your digital watches without considering what is eternal in your life. Slow down, take off your watch, immerse yourself in the timeless, and recognize that our time isn’t God’s time. Then join me in praying that God grant us the patience, the wisdom, and the courage that will be required to prevail in the time before us.

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